Katey and Boots have the opposition over a barrel

Omarama shepherd Katey Hill (22) and her 6-year-old quarterhorse Boots. Photo by Ruth Grundy
Omarama shepherd Katey Hill (22) and her 6-year-old quarterhorse Boots. Photo by Ruth Grundy
Boots'n'all - they've done it.

Omarama shepherd Katey Hill (22) and her 6-year-old quarterhorse Boots are this year's New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys' Association rookie barrel-racing champions.

After little more than one season on Boots, Katey has not only taken her first New Zealand title but is well on the way to making her rodeo dreams come true.

The New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys' Association holds its national finals in Wanaka today and tomorrow.

However, the rookie and junior champions are decided before the finals on points earned throughout the season.

Because the pair quickly built an impressive lead, Miss Hill decided to end Boot's competition season on a "slow note", winding down on the southern run of competitions and dropping from a high of seventh in the national standings to finish 11th.

"It's hard when he's going hot to wind a horse down, but he's been barrel-racing since July. I was thrilled I could do that with him.

"I took a step back since it was his first competition season . . .I want him [to be able to compete] for the next 20 years."

Katey borrowed a mount to compete in her last two events, Waikato and Urenui, finishing sixth and fifth respectively.

She said she won respect for her approach from judges and experienced rodeo competitors.

She plans to be in Wanaka to watch the finals action and accept her trophy and prizes, but when she eventually attempts the open championship she wants to do it in her own way and on her own horse.

It is that streak of independence and sheer grit which underpins her determination to make something of herself in the world of rodeo.

"I like working so much . . . I work until I crash."

Katey's day job is shepherd at Quailburn, with partner and Quailburn stock manager Sam Forsyth.

Her parents are dairy farmers Gaye and Bo Hill and she grew up in in Culverden and Oxford, North Canterbury, with three brothers and an older "tomboy" sister - playing rugby, riding motocross bikes, helping on the farm and driving tractors by age 7.

"It was pretty hands-on."

She would tag along behind her twin brothers on their pig-hunting trips - much to their annoyance, she said.

It was her early passion. She was the "crazy pig hunter of the family".

However, pig hunting has been put on hold for a while while she puts all her efforts into rodeo.

Boarding school was a struggle as Katey battled with the symptoms of Crohn's disease so, moving on, she completed a diploma in agribusiness management by correspondence.

She also made sure she gained her shearing certificate before, urged on by her father, she left for two and a-half years of work experience in Australia.

Her father asked her: did she want to work on a cattle station or in a mine in Australia? She replied she was not "going to sit on a dump truck all day".

Katey's first stop was Liveringa Station in Western Australia, where she continued to study beef cattle farming through the Kimberley Training Institute, and where she met tutor Wayne Stanley, a prominent rodeo sportsman.

Work on the sprawling cattle station was tough, with not many days off - and those days were "rodeo days".

She said she did not see the point in sitting around just watching and drinking all day so she asked if she could compete.

She "had a go at everything".

Barrel racing was the least fun, steer-riding the most fun, she said.

Mr Stanley was initially dubious about her commitment and fairly blunt in his appraisal.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded to know.

He soon realised she knew her stock, but still put her to the test.

"On my first rodeo he put me on his rope horse. I got my first breakaway rope off that horse . . .came second in my very first barrel race."

Mr Stanley sent Katey to Sophie Downs Station, at Halls Creek, so she could further hone her rodeo skills.

It did not take long to prove a point - she won the Kununarra Rodeo 2011 rookie of the year title and, on a whim, entered and won all-round cowgirl for 2012.

"All I wanted to do was rodeo and I don't come from a rodeo background."

Initially, her parents thought she was "just going through a phase" and would get over it. Now they are behind her all the way and could not be more proud, she said.

Katey says she would like take up calf-roping - "there's just you, your horse and the calf".

While she had enjoyed steer-riding, she had no real ambition to compete, and women were not allowed to compete in the event in New Zealand. And first things first - she wants to spend more time working and training her young horses.

Her self-contained nature has seen her teach herself most of what she needs to know to follow her dream - from shoeing through to horse training - earning respect from the rodeo "family" for doing it all herself.

Katey spent the Omarama winter taming and training Boots.

"Everyone has seen him blow - they know he's a time-bomb."

He was happy seeing out the summer at work on the station as a stock horse - "that's what makes them".

Her dogs, too, were enjoying the extra attention now she was back at home.

She was gradually building up her dog team after starting with young dogs, which "is the hard way to do it".

"Sam and I have got a really good balance."

"He helps me with my young dogs and I help with the young horses."

Mr Forsyth is from a leading dog-trialling family in Ward, Marlborough.

- by Ruth Grundy